Details on a Drug Trafficking Ring
February 8, 2011 11:02 AM   Subscribe

When the DEA or FBI makes a major drug bust and the arrested parties go to trial, how would I find the trial or deposition records to understand how the drug trafficking ring worked?

For instance the DEA had major operations (such as OPERATION GLOBAL SEA and OPERATIONS IMPUNITY & MILLENNIUM) where they tracked a drug trafficking operation for up to two years and made numerous arrests. Presumable when the people arrested go to trial, details of how they ran the drug trafficking ring are revealed. How would I get this information, and is it public?
posted by bucksox to Law & Government (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you know what case you're looking for there's always PACER. You do have to pay, though.
posted by dortmunder at 11:47 AM on February 8, 2011

I should add that if the defendants cop a plea, which is very likely in the federal court system, there won't be a lot in the way of details. The juicy stuff usually comes out at trial.
posted by dortmunder at 11:47 AM on February 8, 2011

If it's charged as a conspiracy, some details about who allegedly had what roles and how the drugs were obtained and where they went may be in an affidavit prepared by law enforcement and attached to the information, or in the indictment. That's public and available via PACER or by going to the federal courthouse. If a single person is charged (with possession with intent to distribute, for example, rather than conspiracy), that detail you're looking for is unlikely to be in there and you'd probably have to wait for the trial. Depositions are not all that common in criminal cases.

All the notes of interviews of witnesses, notes from agents, surveillance tapes -- all the raw material of the investigation into the drug trafficking operation -- is not public unless it's made into an exhibit at trial or other hearing.

The presentence investigation report prepared to assist the judge with sentencing usually has a detailed summary of the operation and the defendant's role in it, but that's not public either.

Shorter version: check the charging instrument and any attachments, hearing exhibits, as well as hearing and trial transcripts.
posted by *s at 12:09 PM on February 8, 2011

You should also check your local law school's library or maybe even a public law library. When I was first starting out, there were a number of titles dealing with various aspects of technical crimes. In particular, I recall an entire book written by an accountant-lawyer about various systems of money-laundering. I didn't read it, but a quick skim revealed that it was written to help prosecutors and other professionals identify and successfully prosecute money-launderers.

You may find similar practice oriented materials there. You can also use online legal research tools to find appellate cases about these activities and use that information to find specific cases that may have info you're looking for. I would look for multi-defendant cases that went to trial, and look for trial transcripts or hearings on motions, especially motions to dismiss or to suppress evidence. You are not looking for mere sales or possession cases, but specifically look for conspiracy and/or RICO allegations.

Finally, if you have an academic or some professional reason to be finding out about this stuff, you could certainly contact your local US Attorney's office and ask to talk to an AUSA who has handled cases like this. (You can get names from newspaper articles.) They might not tell you everything they know, but they can probably identify cases that went to trial in their office and may help you get access to transcripts.
posted by Hylas at 1:09 PM on February 8, 2011

If people went to jail the documents should all be public. There are circumstances where they are not public, but I don't know that they would apply here. Here is what I would do:

1) You need to identify the actual district court case that you are looking for. Do you know who the defendant/s is/are? Do you have a case number? (Will look like 96-1234-AAA, meaning year (1996), case number for that year (1,234th case filed), judge's initials (AAA).) Here's one that might be related: U.S. v. Idiado, I think that's a 9th Circuit case number, but you might be able to backtrack it to the district court case number. Identifying the case will allow you to find all of the public documents related to that case, if you know where to look.

2) You look in two places: online (PACER) or the physical location of the case file. Using PACER, entering the case number will give you access to a register of actions, if the case is accessible online. Since these cases are older (1990's), though, they may not be available electronically, so you probably have to get your ass over to the actual courthouse and find out where they keep their physical records. You'll talk to a clerk, fill out a slip of paper identifying the case name and case number, and they'll bring out the case file, assuming it is available.

If you've gotten this far, meaning that you found the case file, and you've had a chance to peruse it, then there are some things in there you might find that are helpful:

(a) First, if the case did not go to trial, and there was a plea agreement, criminal pleas in Federal Court are typically done on the record. That means that the prosecutor has to lay out the facts that support their case, including, likely, elements of the process by which they obtained their evidence that support the plea; and the defendant has to affirm, on the record, that they agree with everything the prosecutor stated, and that they are guilty of whatever they are pleading to. Sometimes, deposition testimony is attached to these plea documents.

(b) If there was a trial, the actual trial transcripts will not usually be in the record. (References to the transcripts, and portions of transcripts, might be.) Trial transcripts are created by court reporters, and they make money when you buy transcripts from them, meaning that the transcripts are not usually put into a record free for all people to see. You would need to find out who the court reporter/s are/were, and call them up, and ask if they can get transcripts for you. Generally, the same goes for depositions taken in the case.

Finally, it doesn't hurt to find out who the prosecutors were on behalf of the federal government, and try giving them a call. They may not call you back, but you never know. These attorneys might be able to help you find where the relevant documents are, or might even have copies in their files.

I don't generally do federal criminal work (maybe talk to Ironmouth), but I have a general understanding of the process and how to locate files if I need them. Hopefully somebody else can come back and give you a better process.
posted by jabberjaw at 2:50 PM on February 8, 2011

ok this is kind of complicated, but i think it might work.

on the us district court pacer sites, you can search for cases by the statute in question. so look that way for cases regarding whatever federal drug law you are interested in.

then, review the dockets for those cases to find one where (1) there was a trial; and (2) there is an appeal.

then, go to the appropriate us court of appeal pacer site, and retrieve the briefs for the appeal. you should have at least some kind of narrative factual statement describing the proof in the case. if it is particularly juicy/what you are looking for, you could try to obtain the trial transcripts as well (which will cost you too)

if you can't get on pacer, your local law librarian may be able to help you do so
posted by wurly at 5:56 PM on February 8, 2011

« Older I'm in the Navy, now???   |   This mouse is losing its tail. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.